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Researchers Believe Cannabinoids Could Treat HIV-associated Disorders

By Alexander Beadle

Published: Jun 16, 2020   
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Researchers at George Mason University have received US$450,000 in funding from the National Institutes of Health to pursue new research into the use of cannabinoids as an adjunct therapy for treating HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders (HAND).

Cannabinoids and HIV research

Dr Fatah Kashanchi, professor and virology director of the Laboratory of Molecular Virology, and Dr Lance Liotta, co-director and co-founder of the Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine, at George Mason University have been awarded the funding to advance their research into mitigating virally driven HIV parthenogenesis in the central nervous system.

“The new NIH funding for the Kashanchi lab is based on the proposal that up to 50 percent of people with HIV/AIDS suffer from HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders (HAND), despite effective combination anti-retroviral therapy (cART). HAND therefore represents a significant cause of morbidity in these patients,” Professor Kashanchi explained to Analytical Cannabis.

“The inability of cART to prevent viral transcription and neurocognitive dysfunction confirms the need for adjunct therapies that target underlying mechanisms that contribute to HAND.”

Such mechanisms include the delivery of ‘selective cargo’ in extracellular vesicles (EVs) that are released from HIV-infected macrophages/microglia. This EV cargo is harmful to other cells and can damage neurons, leading to HAND.

Kashanchi and his colleagues believe that using cannabinoids on HIV-infected cells may alter this harmful cargo, alleviating the negative effects and making cannabinoids a potentially useful adjunct therapy for HAND.

Preliminary results show promise in reducing HIV-1 virus production

The researchers have already gathered preliminary data that suggests cannabinoids, specifically CBD and THC, may be effective in reducing HIV-1 transcription of both short, non-coding RNA and full-length genomic RNA. This reduced transcription then results in a decreased production of the HIV-1 virus.

Following on from this, the researchers have demonstrated that the reduction in transcription results in a decreased incorporation of HIV-1 RNA into EVs released from infected cells. This incorporation has previously shown to contribute to dysfunction in recipient cells and to an increased susceptibility to infection.

The preliminary data also suggests that the therapeutic effect of the cannabinoids is amplified even more by a further reduction in the number of EVs being released from infected cells in the first place.

The researchers hypothesize from their preliminary experiments that cannabinoid treatments may be able to affect host cell pathways in ways which alter EV release and can potentially mitigate EV-related dysfunction, such as HAND.

The proposed future work

The researchers say they have two main aims for their future work, which will be supported by the NIH funding.

Firstly, they intend to properly define the mechanisms that appear to be causing the cannabinoid-mediated decreased EV production and release, which was seen in the preliminary research on HIV-1 infected cells.

Secondly, they aim to determine the effect of CBD and THC on HIV-1 expression using 3D neurospheres. Neurospheres are a culture system made up of free-floating clusters of neural stem cells, which scientific researchers commonly use to investigate neural precursor cells in vitro.

From studying both of these factors, the researchers hope to highlight the role of cannabinoids in EV release and in the dampening of the neuroinflammation.

The NIH funding for this research began in May 2020 and is due to conclude in late-April 2022. 


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